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The Global Warming Debate: Science and Scientists in a Democracy

Follow-up

Stuart Jordan

Volume 31.6, November / December 2007

As the author of two recent Skeptical Inquirer articles on global warming and climate change, I would like to offer some concluding thoughts on this topic, which enjoys an emerging consensus among an overwhelming majority of researchers working in the field but remains controversial among some in the general public. Because the issue deals with future activities of important sectors of the American economy, it is not surprising that the magazine has received an unusually large number of responses to it. My two articles (“Global Climate Change Triggered by Global Warming,” Parts 1 and 2, May/June and July/August 2007) speak for themselves, as do the follow-up comments of the critics and the supporters (September/October 2007). Since my response to the critics appears in that issue as well, I will not review that dialogue again. However, the exchange did raise important questions about the role of science (and of scientists) in a democracy, and it is this topic I wish to address here.

It is important that the public have a reasonable understanding of what science is and of what science can and cannot do in helping to settle issues that eventually reach the public square and thus take on a political dimension. Most people understand that science is a process for seeking the truth about how the natural order works. It is the process itself, not the results of applying it, that lies at the heart of science. Fewer people may realize that this process virtually guarantees the integrity of science in the long run even if individual scientists make mistakes, as all occasionally do, or if a (very) rare individual is actually dishonest and falsifies data. This guaranty results not from any intrinsic moral superiority of scientists themselves, but from the fact that research examined by scientific colleagues in the most prestigious medium, the refereed publications, is quickly subjected to ruthless examination for any errors. Those who detect an error often gain as much credit for their scrutiny as those whose work survives it. Scientists who deliberately avoid this scrutiny by publishing their work in less respected media are understandably and properly given less credence for their efforts. History has demonstrated convincingly that the latter work is much more likely to contain serious errors.

Science does not offer certainty. The results of modern science are typically presented in the language of statistics and probabilities. This is especially true of scientific studies of complex phenomena, of which climate science is an excellent example, even though these phenomena remain rooted in the basic laws of nature. Nevertheless, the existence of “uncertainty” has led some individuals less familiar with science to interpret any uncertainty as evidence for “a major scientific controversy” even when there is none. Thus the general public is vulnerable to the claim that a major scientific dispute over climate science is underway between two equally large and well-qualified groups of scientists, when this is simply not so. Often this false claim is made by those who wish to discourage action to address the problems associated with climate change. There are certainly a few scientists of integrity who remain skeptical of the current near consensus, but the interested reader might consider the language of some of the critics and investigate their sources.

The real issue at stake today is what to do in light of what science has uncovered. Here there is a real controversy. One group favors action in response to the alarming evidence that global warming is definitely occurring, most likely driven by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, while the other side opposes this view for reasons ranging from a few still-unresolved scientific questions to concerns of a more economic and political nature. Typically, the latter group is dominated by those fearing change of the industrial status quo, and they tend to be more vehement in advocating their position.

This leads into two final issues needing comment. The first acknowledges the importance of addressing the economic dislocations and economic opportunities that will result from actions to mitigate the effects of global warming. There is an understandable—not always unwise—human tendency to want to continue with the familiar. This produces a natural inclination to oppose change unless it becomes disastrous not to do so, which can lead to overlooking the many—in this case economic—opportunities associated with pursuing more climate-friendly and eco-friendly technologies. These include many technologies already available, with others undergoing current development that could be accelerated if proper economic incentives were provided. Interested readers can find examples, which I was unable to include in my articles due to space constraints, at www.cfidc.org/opp/jordan.html. The final question I wish to address is what the responsibilities of scientists are in a democracy that, de facto, provides much of the funding for their research. Many working scientists would prefer to have little to do with the political process, yet there is no denying that most scientists today receive much of their support from governments. Performing one’s research with integrity is obviously part of the answer, but is it the full answer? Some would say yes and defend this position by noting that distracting a competent researcher from his or her research is likely to reduce scientific productivity. As one who has both performed and managed research, I agree with this position under most circumstances. However, if major public policies depend on science for their proper formulation, as is true of climate science today, a strong case can be made that it becomes the duty of the scientist to inform the public and the political establishment of the best science available on the issue, especially when there are others exerting a major effort to suppress consideration of it. A historical example was the effort of the atomic scientists following World War II to inform the public of the unprecedented power and appalling destructiveness of nuclear weapons. A growing number of climate scientists, and others in related fields, are engaging in a similar educational effort today. I believe this effort serves the public well, and that it should continue.

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Stuart Jordan, PhD, is the former Science Advisor to the Center for Inquiry Office of Public Policy.